How many times have you heard someone saying that they’re “jammed with work,” or “overwhelmed,” “slammed,” or “so busy?” Or how many times have you yourself said just that? I admit, I must have said “I’m so busy” about five times in the past few days.
Somehow, our society praises those who are constantly on the grind, looking for the next thing to do, racing to clear up the ‘to-do list’ asap, constantly working to achieve the next goal. We seem to be steadily living in the race for the future, and busyness is seen almost as a status symbol.
This predominantly masculine energy is constantly on-the-go, and is what currently permeates and predominates in both the workplace and our overall culture. And those who are more balanced, or even who sit on the other extreme -- those individuals who are more relaxed and don’t have overcommitted calendars -- are oftentimes seen as “lazy”.
If we reflect upon this, we can conclude that busyness is a by-product of the modern human’s overly busy mind. We are so used to thinking about what we’re gonna do on our next holiday, what we’re gonna have for dinner, what we’re gonna do next weekend, that we often forget to enjoy and appreciate the present moment. Some might even say that they don’t know how to be present at all. How crazy is that?!
If you allow me to be a bit more esoteric, according to many spiritual teachers, like Eckhart Tolle and Ram Das, in truth there is no past and no future. The only thing we ever have is the present moment. We only have the “here and now.”
So, if we only have the present moment, why do we even waste our time and energy obsessing about what’s gone, and worrying about what hasn’t happened yet? That’s the million-dollar question that many spiritual leaders have been trying to answer. And again, it all comes down to the busy mind. A busy mind isn’t capable of being still, of appreciating ‘what is’. A busy mind can only obsessively attempt to control the future and find explanations for what has happened in the past.
This is good to a certain extent. Using the analytical mind to plan and prepare for the future is a great thing to do until it becomes our whole life. The mind wasn’t designed for being constantly busy. As Robin Sharma said, “the mind is a wonderful servant but a terrible master.” It isn’t only terrible... it also causes us to be more anxious, unhappy and depressed.
The good news is that there are a few ways to tackle this issue and to break the vicious cycle of the busy mind. The even better news is that you won’t need to change what you do, but rather how you do it.
The Stoic Approach to the Busy Mind
The most powerful takeaway from Stoic philosophy on how to work with the racing mind is to determine whether a thought, a circumstance, an action, and an emotion are things that are under our control.
In other words, what makes us preoccupied and overwhelmed isn’t the length of our to-do list, instead it is our thoughts about it.
As opposed to what many people might believe, changing the outer circumstances and trying to control the environment around you won’t solve your problems.
Epictetus said, “We are disturbed not by the things that happen, but by our thoughts about the things that happen.” Moving to an island paradise won’t automatically make you less stressed or busy if your mind is still operating via the same old program. Remember, it’s not the ‘what,’ but the ‘how.’
Instead, we need to focus on working on the busyness at the level of the mind. To get there, we need a still, focused and present mind.
“A Wandering Mind is an Unhappy One”
The above is the title of a Harvard study from 2010. The psychologists Matthew Killingsworth and Daniel Gilbert found that there are so many factors that contribute to the busyness of the mind other than just the long to-do list.
They said that almost half of our thoughts, as we already mentioned here, are about the past or the future. Even when in casual and pleasurable activities, the mind tends to wander elsewhere. While you might hope all this mental wandering is taking us to happier places, the data says otherwise.
In the same study, they debunked the myth that hard-partiers and world travelers are the happiest if compared to the average Joe or Jane. The study showed that daily happiness is linked to how you spend your day rather than what you do:
“According to the data from the Harvard group’s study, the particular way you spend your day doesn’t tell much about how happy you are. Mental presence - the matching of thought to action - is a much better predictor of happiness.”
In other words, being present and aligning thought with action -- like washing the dishes and being absolutely immersed in the present moment -- may bring much more pleasure than enjoying a dinner at a fancy restaurant if the mind is elsewhere.
The Worst-case Scenario? Really?
“Man is not worried by real problems so much as by his imagined anxieties about real problems.” — Epictetus
The underlying causes behind all this anxiety and stress that makes us so obsessed with “possible future case scenarios” are the things we fear the most. Seneca’s worst fear was poverty. He was a man who enjoyed wealth and luxury and he feared losing it all.
So, instead of spending his energy “imagining the worst-case scenario,” in other words how life would be without the comforts and luxuries he’d come to enjoy, he instead decided to “establish business relations with poverty.”
Instead of just constantly thinking about them, Seneca lived his worst fears, and then he asked himself: “Is this the condition that I feared?” The more familiar we get with discomfort, the less worried we get about it.
How to Tackle Busyness in a Healthy Way?
Now, from theory to application, from philosophy to the real world. Most of the practices we’ve listed below are as age-tested as the theories previously presented. Unfortunately, there’s no such thing as approaching and tackling busyness in a healthy way in a busy environment -- from the starting point of a busy mind.
If you came this far in this article, you’ve probably noticed that the only way to truly tackle busyness is by putting your foot on the brake. There’s no way around it, we can’t bypass and rationalize away the natural states of the human mind. We’ve been trying this for centuries, and as you might’ve noticed, it’s not working.
The only way -- the healthy way to accomplish less busyness is by coming back to our natural state, which is a still, peaceful state of awareness. Here are five ways you can do this for yourself:
1) Start a Meditation Practice
The best way to calm the mind down is through meditation. Meditation isn’t a thing for a small number of “special” people. Rather, it is available to everyone. Science has already proved many benefits of meditation practice and how it affects various aspects of our psychological wellbeing.
To be more specific, mindfulness meditation is a wonderful tool that teaches the brain how to develop the skill of paying attention to the present moment by noticing when the mind wanders. When practicing this skill on a daily basis, we can light up parts of the brain that aren’t functioning when we’re in a hurry or jumping from one thought to the next.
If you have never meditated before, no worries. There are a myriad of resources available for you to start, from apps to books, to YouTube videos, groups, and also personal guided meditations.
At Mindful Life, Mindful Work Inc., we offer different services for those looking to begin a new or to further develop an existing mindfulness practice.
2) And Maybe Try Other Mindfulness Techniques
Contrary to popular belief, meditation isn’t the only way to practice mindfulness. Being mindful is the ability to fully immerse in the present moment, and that can happen in different ways. You can practice mindfulness while you’re washing the dishes, walking, listening to others while they speak, eating, by practicing mindful breathing, or any other mindful practice of your choice.
3) Consider Mono-tasking, Instead of Multi-tasking
Neuroscience has already said: we’re mono-taskers. If you’re used to switching back and forth between tasks, you should think twice. Multi-tasking taxes the brain, and it harms productivity.
Choosing mindful ways of working over multi-tasking (or at least mono-tasking) will help you work more effectively and will also result in supporting better overall feelings throughout your day.
Journaling, as simple as it is, has incredible benefits when it comes to improving both mental and physical health. Journaling is making its comeback from our teenage years into our adult lives. According to experts, it’s a form of self-expression that can lift and empower people to better understand their complex feelings and find humor in the midst of life.
Journaling lets you work through your anxious feelings and obsessive worries, giving you a better and broader perspective on life’s problems.
Seneca also had a journaling routine. He used to journal in the evenings as a way to help him to calm his mind and relax before going to bed. If you don’t know how to do it, there’s nothing fancy to it. Seneca said you should “write whatever enters your head.”
5) Reassess Your Daily Habits
When it comes to the transition from multi-tasking to mono-tasking, it’s crucial to evaluate how your current daily routine looks. Are you the type of person who takes care of house chores, while supervising your kids and attending a Zoom meeting, all at the same time? If yes, you already know that multi-tasking of any sort doesn’t really work and it also decreases productivity. The first step is to recognize that.
The second is to write down what are the things you tend to do all at once, and how can you instead manage them in a way in which you don’t have to divide your attention and switch from one task to the next. In other words, how can you divide your day in a way that you can focus on one task at a time? This isn’t always logistically possible but do your best, even if the end result isn’t some perfect solution… your efforts will nudge you in an increasingly self-supporting direction.
Camila Santiago is a content writer and strategist specializing in health and corporate wellness, including extensive experience writing SEO-friendly content. She writes, edits and proof-reads content on wellness topics spanning physical, mental and emotional wellbeing, and does so for organizations aiming to improve overall employee wellbeing and professional excellence.